Dutch speedskating legend Ireen Wüst enters her fifth consecutive Olympics on Tuesday, with a chance to win the gold medal in individual sprint skating. Injuries have kept her off the ice since 2010 but she’s been training and preparing for this moment ever since.
The “Eric Heiden” is a speedskating legend who has been competing in the Olympics for 5 straight years. Ireen Wüst, from Netherlands, enters her fifth straight Olympics. Read more in detail here: eric heiden.
Ireen Wüst still smiles when she thinks about the chocolate bar.
The recollection dates back more than two decades, to one of Wüst’s first days as a member of the Dutch junior national speedskating team. The group had gathered for a lengthy bicycle ride, similar to the kind of grueling exercise used by speedskaters to improve endurance. Looking around, Wüst saw — first with surprise, then with fear — that everyone had packed packets of specialized energy gels to feed them for the activity.
Wüst had taken a Snickers bar with him.
In a recent interview, she claimed, “They all laughed at me.” “I had to learn certain things quickly.”
Even back then, Wüst was a phenomenon. She was also an Olympic champion at the age of 19, having won a surprise gold medal in the 3,000 meters (as well as a bronze in the 1,500) in the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.
Even though she continued to win, she confessed that she was still learning how to be a professional skater. She was uneven, her coaches remember, a churning maelstrom of raw power and physical endowments, her way forward unknown.
“She was a little girl winning races but without really understanding what she was doing or how she was doing it,” Wüst’s first professional coach, Gerard Kemkers, remarked.
Wüst, 35, uses the narrative of the chocolate bar to demonstrate how far she has come and to highlight the distinction between talent and professionalism in athletics. When athletes are young and nimble, the former can take them to success, but only to a point. The latter is something they must learn and give up in order to achieve.
With both, and in plenty, they may begin to dream of having the résumé Wüst has compiled: five Olympic gold medals, accumulated over four Winter Games, with a chance this month in Beijing — where she will race in the 1,500 and 1,000-meter and team pursuit events — to add to that total.
Wüst’s narrative is, in some ways, the story of Dutch speedskating. With 42 of the 192 gold medals given in Olympic history, the nation is the dominating power in the sport. Wüst is the most decorated speedskater in Winter Games history, having won 11 medals. That makes her a superstar in her skating-crazed homeland, where a half-dozen commercially funded teams support dozens of full-time professional skaters, a system unlike any other.
But it’s possible that the story of Wüst’s success against the Dutch system is more captivating. The Netherlands has only become stronger in recent years, with skaters from the nation winning half of the 78 medals available at the last two Winter Olympics. National trials are sometimes seen as more competitive and tough to win than the Olympics itself. Despite these constant surges of fresh talent, Wüst has never been washed away, all while avoiding the roadblocks that other sportsmen face over time, such as age, injuries, parental obligations, restlessness, and boredom.
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The 2022 Olympics will signal the end of an era, with Wüst’s countryman Sven Kramer, probably the most dominating men’s speedskater of all time, competing in his fifth Olympics.
“He’s the king of speedskating,” Wüst said of Kramer, who has nine career medals to just Wüst’s eight. “And I’m maybe a little bit the queen.”
How admirable is this kind of perseverance? According to historian Bill Mallon, there were around 143,000 Olympians in history before the 2022 Olympics. (The exact number is uncertain since 100 or more competitors from the first Games remain unidentified.) Eight hundred and thirteen of those competitors, or around 0.6 percent, have participated in five or more Games.
“If she wants something, she strives for it until she falls down,” Wüst’s junior national team coach, Peter Kolder, remarked. “I refer to it as a hard head.” That’s something I don’t think many athletes have.”
7:02 a.m. ET, February 5, 2022
Wüst was naturally gifted in several areas. She recalls her first time on speed skates, for example. She had asked her father to get her a pair when she was ten years old. When he finally did, she laced them on, walked out into a frozen canal, and skated away easily, much to her father’s amazement. That day, she and her father skated approximately 20 kilometers (12.4 miles), listening to their blades scratch the ice and feeling her legs smolder. She was completely sucked in.
“Something beautiful happened to me,” she said.
She is the most successful Dutch Olympian of all time, two and a half decades later. Her two gold medals in 2006 were followed by two golds and three silvers in 2010, two golds and three silvers in 2014, and a gold and two silvers in 2018. (Her most prized medal, she added, is the gold she earned in the 1,500 meters at the 2020 World Championships, which she won only weeks after her closest friend and former colleague Pauline van Deutekom died of lung cancer.)
Coaches and teammates laud Wüst’s mental toughness above all else, a skill critical to navigating the big-picture challenges of a lengthy career as well as the interior agony of a single race.
One of the Noble Truths of the Winter Games may be that speedskating is suffering.
Skaters crouch like frogs for many minutes, their upper bodies bowed parallel to the ground, as if looking for a misplaced contact lens on the ice. When asked to recount the discomfort of the 1,500-meter race, Wüst chuckled. “Find New York’s highest skyscraper, enter the stairwell, and go all out for two minutes,” she said. “That’s a taste of what we go through.”
Skaters claim that if you’re fortunate, you’ll melt into a meditative state where you sense the pain but aren’t agitated by it, where your limbs are pushing and swaying in seamless unison, and your mind is otherwise delightfully blank. However, such encounters are mystically uncommon. For the most part, suffering is unavoidable.
“Those who can live with the agony the best, conquer it, forget it, they’re going to win,” Carl Verheijen, a former skater who is the Netherlands’ chief de mission this year, said. He went on to say that Wüst is particularly good at this.
In the end, speedskating is a basic sport. Athletes skate around in a circle. The one who finishes in the shortest amount of time wins.
Wüst imagines her body as a Formula 1 racecar at times, and as her career has evolved, she has become more captivated by the thought that everything she does to it, whether sleeping, eating, or training, has a quantifiable influence on her speed. She added, “There are so many buttons you can press.”
She stage-manages her days to the minute now, in the closing months of her career, waking up at the same time, working out at the same time, and taking a nap every day from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. to minimize factors that may sway her off course.
She misses family events and puts everything on wait in her life. (Because of the epidemic, she and her girlfriend, skater Letitia de Jong, have had to cancel their wedding four times.) They want to tie the knot this summer.) And her meals are nutritionally sound – no more large Snickers bars for her.
Desly Hill, one of Wüst’s instructors, described her routines and self-imposed regulations as “brutal and magnificent.” “She’s like a robot designed to go to and win the Olympics.”
Wüst, on the other hand, is far from robotic. Rather, she seems to be motivated by emotion on a regular basis.
She is, for example, the sort of athlete who competes with a chip on her shoulder, inventing conflict where none exists. She claims that she speaks to herself before each race, reminding herself that no one is as good as she.
“She could make herself really dislike her opponent in a race and then forget about it after the race,” claimed Geert Kuiper, one of Wüst’s first professional team’s trainers. “However, she would exploit that feeling to her advantage.”
Wüst’s mother fills a new binder with reams of news clippings each season. Wüst’s house is overflowing with these books, and she seems to have a photographic recall of every slight contained inside them.
“I believe there is at least one piece every season that says ‘Wüst is done’ or ‘Wüst should resign,’” she remarked.
Occasionally, she receives similar notes from her own staff. Wüst’s professional team left her days after the 2018 Olympics, effectively informing her that she was too old to fit into their plans for the next Olympic cycle.
As a result, Wüst has persevered, working harder than ever before, more disciplined than ever before, relishing the rigor, the agony, and the routine.
She said, “I wanted to prove to the world that I wasn’t too old.” “Who says I’m too old?” asks the narrator.
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